Inflating an aside – disagreements over a theoretical papal visit

“It is not impossible,” Pope Francis said about visiting the Netherlands. “And now that the Netherlands has an Argentine queen, who knows?”

hagrid meme

He may wish he had refrained from this aside in the interview with Straatnieuws, which was published last week. Because even this is reason for some to launch into diatribes about papal visits being blocked and bishops being less than keen to have the Holy Father come over.

Following the interview, the bishops’ conference released a statement to the effect that Pope Francis has always been and remains welcome, although there is, at this time, no official invitation. Early last year Cardinal Eijk, president of the conference, enquired with Pope Francis about a visit to the Netherlands, to which the Holy Father replied that he did not see a chance in the near future. The bishops acknowledged this in last week’s statement, and repeated that a visit remains possible, “if there is space in everyone’s agenda”. Earlier today, they once again stated something similar, adding that the Pope is aware that he is welcome and that the bishops remain in contact with Pope Francis about it.

Some have called this a pathetic response, and others have – once again – sent an open letter to the media to convince the Pope to come and visit after all. A visit that, they claim or at least suggest, the bishops do not want, but which the faithful desperately need.

Thus an image is drawn based on a faulty perception: the Pope’s comment in the interview is taken far too seriously (of course he is not going to say he doesn’t want to come and visit), and the bishops’ statement, coupled with the continued absence of any preparation for a papal visit, is seen as active opposition on the part of the local episcopate.

It would be wonderful if Pope Francis would make an apostolic journey to the Netherlands, but let’s be realistic. It’s not as if our country is significant when seen from Rome, nor will it feature high on the list of Pope Francis’ priorities. The financial  and logistical side, not unimportant, requires careful preparation. An open invitation or petition by itself is not going to do that. I don’t blame the bishops for being careful. To see that as a sign of opposition is delusional.

A papal visit should unite the faithful – bishops and laity -, not draw lines. At this moment, the latter is happening.

“An uphill marathon” – Cardinal Eijk after the Synod

Eijk%20synode%201%20klIn a press conference in Rome, snippets of which were released by Katholiek Nieuwsblad and, Cardinal Eijk spoke about the Synod of Bishops in which he participated as the sole Dutch Synod father, calling it an uphill marathon because of the workload and long days. Below I share some quotes, in which the cardinal comments on some of the issues that were widely reported, such as the alleged fighting between parties among the Synod fathers:

“It sometimes seemed as if we were contantly fighting, but that is not how I experienced it. The Pope had asked to speak in parresia, that is to say with great frankness, and that is what happened, both in the plenary meetings and in the smaller language groups. Regarding some questions it became clear that there were different visions, but there was room for that.”

About changes in the Church’s approach to marriage, Cardinal Eijk stated once again that the doctrine of the Church was not going to change. Marriage preparation, however, was much emphasised as a topic that the Church needed to develop.

“Pope Francis himself has said several times that he will not change the Church’s teachings and that that was not the goal of the Synod. The topic of the Synod is the pastoral care towards marriage and family. An important conclusion of this Synod is that the preparation for a religious marriage must be well developed. For example, in Italy there are extensive programs for marriage preparation, and in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, too, there is the intention of intensifying marriage preparation. Before people enter into a marriage in the Church, they must know well what this means. With a marriage according to her teaching, which is based on the words of Jesus himself, the Church asks much of spouses, but they can also rely on God giving them the required strength and mercy.”

And there it is again, the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful…

“It is good to emphasise once again that divorced and remarried faithful do not need to be outside the Church. The Church is also there for them, and God’s grace also comes to them in different way than through Holy Communion. Hearing and reading the Word of God and prayer are sources of grace.”

The Synod is not perfect, and nothing it does carries magisterial weight. Only the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, if it appears, does. The cardinal summarised what the Synod did do:

“As Synod Fathers we are certainly not perfect, and in that sense the Synod is also not perfect. But the Pope is the guarantee of unity in the Church and as faithful we can rely on the Holy Spirit leading God’s Church. Although the doctrine of the Church will not change, there are certainly improvements possible concerning fruitful pastoral care regarding marriage and family.”

And finally, Cardinal Eijk had to face the question about that leaked letter from a group of cardinal to the Pope, in which they expressed their concerns about the new form of the Synod. Ultimately, the cardinal chose not provide and answer:

“I do not think that I should discuss my private correspondence with the Holy Father. So I will neither deny nor confirm that I signed that letter.”

The closest thing to his intervention – Cardinal Eijk looks back at Synod and World Meeting of Families

As Cardinal Eijk, unlike his Belgian and German colleagues, chose not to make his Synod intervention(s) public, here is his monthly contribution to the archdiocesan magazine, written in Rome. In it, the cardinal looks back on the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia and his paticipation in the Synod of Bishops.

Eijk“The Church’s great focus on the family takes you places. Last year, in October, I was in Rome for two weeks for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, in which I took part as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. Two weeks ago I was in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Familes. I gave an address there as part of one panel, and chaired another panel. At the moment I write this text, I am in Rome for the Ordinary Synod of Bishops. The Bishops’ Conference asked me to represent them here. This year, the Synod even takes three weeks.

Philadelphia was like a warm bath. Some 17,000 people took part in the convention on the family. While the Church’s  teaching about marriage and family is seen by many as hopelessly old-fashioned and is heavily criticised from all sides, a great number of families which strongly believed in and practiced that teaching had come together in Philadelphia. The great joy this gave them was apparent in the great enthusiasm with which they took part in this meeting.

On Sunday 26 September* the Pope spoke to the cardinals and bishops present in the chapel of the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This is an enormous building with a chapel larger than the cathedral in Utrecht. It gave me a minor case of feeling like Calimero**. The number of seminarians there is 110, ten times as much as in our archdiocese.

Of course the Pope spoke to us about the family: “For the Church, the family is not first and foremost a cause for concern, but rather the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation. Every day, all over the world, the Church can rejoice in the Lord’s gift of so many families who, even amid difficult trials, remain faithful to their promises and keep the faith!”

The people of Philadelphia were very pleased with the papal visit. The city – especially the centre – was largely closed of. They did have to accept some discomfort for it. During the papal visit the ever-present security only allowed me to enter the hotel booked for me – likewise in the city centre – if I wore a red armband around my left wrist. Since I was unable to remove it, and I didn’t carry a pair of scissors with me, I had to carry it with me back to the Netherlands. In the airplane next to me some musicians teasingly asked me to what rock festival I had been. Participants in such a festival also get such an armband, apparently. The first thing I did when I came home, was getting rid of that stupid armband.

Something I will certainly not be getting rid of, is the encouragement I took with me from Philadelphia. And I can use it well at the second Synod of Bishops on the family. Life according to the teachings of the Church about marriage and sexuality is something that many people in modern society find difficult, if not impossible. And witnessing to it is no less difficult. Perhaps we consider it in the same way as the rich youth thought about giving up all his possession in order to follow Jesus. And what is Jesus’ answer to such concerns? “To God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). In other words: it is possible to live according to the teachings of the Church, actually the teachings of Christ, if we have faith in the strength that God gives instead of only in our own strength. The participants in the World Meeting of Families 2015 in Philadelphia give enthusiastic and contagious witness of that.”

*27 september, actually, according to the Vatican website
**Cartoon character quite well known in the Netherlands, a small black chick forever complaining that everyone around him was bigger (“and that’s not fair!”).

The Synod – time for some personal thoughts

There is so much talk about the Synod that it’s hard to decide what to blog about it when available blogging hours per day are limited. Should I focus on what I thought about all the interventions, the rumours, the hopes and fears? Or would it be a good idea to make available the translated texts from some of the Synod fathers that have been making headlines in the runup to the Synod? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Obviously I decided to focus on the latter, and it has proven to be a good decision, judging from the interest it has been getting.

But of course I do have thoughts on the Synod, and as this is a blog, I will be sharing some of them.

First of all, we are looking at glimpses of the Synod from the outside, which limits the amount of reliable information we are getting. Of course, some reports and interpretations are more reliable than others, and personally I find myself gravitating towards the more level-headed reports. The Synod is not over yet, so I find myslef annoyed at the fear and panic in some quarters of the web. As if they already know what the result is going to be: a disaster for Church and faith. I somehow doubt that. We should be glad if this Synod even has a lasting effect.

I have been translating the interventions of the Belgian and German Synod fathers (it’s a shame that the sole Dutch Synod father, Cardinal Eijk, has chosen not to disclose his text). Does that mean I agree with them? No, not automatically. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that just because it’s written by a Belgian or a German it’s automatically heresy. They have good things to say. They also say some things which I find worrisome. An example. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see a reason for divorced and remarried Catholics to be allowed to receive Communion. If we take the indissolubility of marriage seriously, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, we can’t say that divorce and remarrying is no big deal. Certainly, this makes things difficult for the people involved, no doubt about that. But what is the basis of our faith? The person, words and actions of Jesus or the emotions and feelings of people? The latter, which does not mean we should not take the latter seriously. And that is what I believe this Synod is, or should be, about.

As the German bishops especially have emphasised, we must go to the people where they are. Jesus did. But He didn’t tell them to stay there. He told them to change their circumstances. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus does not condemn us, but does urge us to change our ways. That is what we as Church should always keep in mind and try to emulate. Not condemning people, but urging them to leave their wrongs behind them.

The fruitful path for the Synod is, in my opinion, not to be found in changing doctrine, but in pastoral practice. There is much to win there in term of efficiency.

How to deal with all the rumours about the Synod? Ignore them. There is one reliable source to learn about the atmosphere, the factions or lack thereof, on the Synod floor, and that is the Synod fathers themselves. They’re categorically denying the existence of factions, of fighting and anger. It’s a good and fruitful effort, they say, with room for debate, discussion, disagreement even. That’s the hallmark of any proper debate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming to know what certain cardinals, bishops or even the Pope wants or tries to do. If we learn about a letter to the Pope, that is no reason to scream “rebellion!”, but a perfectly normal way of communicating. The Pope is not above debate and can deal with questions and even different opinions.

We are Catholics, which means we have a living faith of hope and beauty. We are not unfamiliar with some optimism and trust in the Holy Spirit. Let Him do His work. Do not presume to always know better .

francis synod

^Even the Pope has reason to smile going into the Synod, so let us not be too grumpy

Cardinal concerns – 13 cardinals write to the Pope

Note: This story is developing as many questions have arisen about the contents of the letter and the names of the cardinals who signed it. Treat it with much care.

First there was the 5 Cardinals Book and the 11 Cardinals Book, and now we have the 13 Cardinals Letter. Via Sandro Magister comes a letter that 13 cardinals sent to Pope Francis on the eve of the Synod, on 5 October. In it, they express their concerns and questions about the revised processes of the Synod.


The cardinals, among them Cardinal Eijk, claim that the Instrumentum laboris is flawed in parts and has an excessive influence on the discussions and the final document (if there is even going to be one). The fact that debate is limited to the small language groups and that there is no voting on propositions or the composition of the drafting committee of the reworked Instrumentum are also points of concern. The cardinals also say that anyone tasked with drafting anything should be elected, not appointed. The new procedures, they say, are not true to the spirit of the Synod and their reason for having been made remains unclear.

Their concern that the deliberations of the Synod on a pastoral topic will become dominated by the theological/doctrinal question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried has in part proven to be unwarranted. Many Synod fathers, not least from the west, have insisted that the Synod is about much more than that question. But as this issue continues to make headlines and dominate the reports and opinion pieces, the letter’s final paragraph remains interesting to read:

“If [the question of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful dominates the deliberations], this will inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture.  The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”

The letter has been signed by the following cardinals:

  • Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna
  • Thomas Cardinal Collins, archbishop of Toronto
  • Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York
  • Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht
  • Péter Cardinal Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and relator general of the Synod
  • Gerhard Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod
  • George Cardinal Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy
  • Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, Major Penitentiary
  • Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Angelo Cardinal Scola, archbishop of Milan
  • Jorge Cardinal Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas
  • André Cardinal Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and one of the presidents delegate of the Synod

Some have chosen to see this letter as an act of opposition to Pope Francis by overly orthodox prelate who don’t much like the Pope anyway, which, in my opinion is overly simplistic. While a number of the thirteen also contributed to the aforementioned 5 an 11 Cardinals Books and are know to be more conservative in theological and doctrinal matters, others (such as Cardinals Dolan, Collins and Vingt-Trois) are at least less vocally so. Their presence on the list of authors may reflect the more universal nature of the concerns.

These concerns over the Instrumentum laboris are hardly limited to these 13, judging by the commentary by, to name but one, Archbishop Mark Coleridge in his delightful blog posts from the Synod. Another prelate, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, hardly a mean old orthodox reactionary, has also said that the Instrumentum is flawed, but that its purpose is to be sacrificed.

The Synod is a venue of discussion, and that is exactly what we’re getting. Not only about the topic at hand, but also about the best ways of running these affairs. This is all the more prudent as rumours have begun to circulate that the Synod of Bishops will become an even more permanent and regular fixture of Church governance.

Edit: four of the alleged signatories of the letter, Cardinals Angelo Scola, André Vingt-Trois, Mauro Piacenza and Wilfrid Napier have now denied signing this letter. It remains to be seen what this means for the reliability of the letter and other cardinals on the list.

As the Synod begins, a short note from the cardinal

Via, a short note from Cardinal Eijk, who is the sole Dutch participant in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops which was opened yesterday with a Holy Mass.

“The opening celebration, in which we prayed for the support of the Holy Spirit, was impressive, and we are ready to begin this intense period of listening to and deliberating and discussing with each other. I hope that faithful across the world and in especially in the Netherlands pray with us for God’s blessing over this Synod.”

synod of bishops

 Cardinal Baldisseri addresses the Synod, flanked by the Pope and, at his right, Archbishop Bruno Forte, the special secretary, and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, president delegate. Seated in the third row from the bottom, second from the right, seems to be Cardinal Eijk, flanked by Cardinals Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal and Christopher Collins.

Today was the first full day of deliberations, although for the majority of Synod father, much of it was taken up by listening. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod, once again explained the processes of the coming three weeks. Cardinal Péter Erdö, relator general, held a long exposition outlining the context and topics of the Synod. John Allen has a good analysis of the cardinal’s talk. His clear words about the impossibility of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, ruffled a number of feathers outside the Synod hall, but it should be clear by now that the Synod is not about to change doctrine. Rather, its focus is pastoral care and how it may best be developed and practiced. As Cardinal Vingt-Trois put it at this afternoon’s press conference, “If you think you will find a radical change in Church doctrine, you’ll be disappointed”. The archbishop of Paris, who serves the Synod as one of four President Delegates, stated that the Synod has two goals: to propose the Gospel of the family and the pastoral accompaniment of families in their realities.

Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano

Clear communication – Cardinal Eijk on the indissolubility of marriage

eijkKerknet, the website of the Catholic Church in Flanders, features a piece on Cardinal Eijk’s contribution to the 11 Cardinals Book, and reveal some more context to his arguments, which until now have only been shared in short quotes (at least for those who have not read the book, like your blogger). Such quotes out of context do little to accurately reflect the thoughts of the cardinal, and have generally been maligned in Catholic and secular media. How I wish Cardinal Eijk or those around him would be less hesitant (afraid even?) to share his arguments and his involvement in the Synod and related events (for example, it would have been good to hear or read some comments from the cardinal himself about his involvement in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last week – this is a high-profile Catholic event which draws attention from across the globe, and a more open and sharing approach would do much good, both at home and abroad).

Anyway, the Kerknet article:

In his contribution to the book that eleven cardinals published in relation to the Synod of Bishops on the family (Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family, pp. 45-55, published by Ignatius Press), Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk argues that the Church’s  teaching about divorced and remarried Catholics must be preserved unchanged. The long history of Church practice and repeated statements from the Magisterium that divorced and civilly remarried people can not be allowed to receive Communion, indicate clearly that this is an unchangeable doctrine, according to the Dutch Church leader. The Catholic Church can accommodate them pastorally by giving them a blessing, so that they not feel excluded.

Theological sources in Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church are sufficiently clear, according to Cardinal Eijk. The passage from the Gospel of Matthew (“I tell you that he who puts away his wife, not for any unfaithfulness of hers, and so marries another, commits adultery”, Matt. 19:9), which is used by the eastern Orthodox Churches to allow a second or third marriage of someone who is divorced, can not be invoked to make a second sacramental marriage possible. “The magisterium of the Church has always been clear and resolute about the indissolubility of a marriage that has been consummated, as well as the absolute prohibition of divorce, followed by a new marriage.”

Cardinal Eijk does not believe that dissolution because of lack of faith, or a simplification of the procedures for the nullification of a marriage, is a pastoral way out. The Catholic Church should communicate the faith better and emphasise its basis more adequately and clearly, “something that was neglected in the past half century”. Couples preparing marriage should have “at least five to ten” sessions of marriage preparation and “priests should dare to ask couples who want a church wedding if they believe in the indissolubility of marriage. In the interest of the couples themselves they should be more selective about who they give access to the sacrament of marriage.”

“In Dutch dioceses those who want to are invited to come forward for Communion. Those who can not receive Communion are asked to come forward with their arms crossed, as a sign to be given a blessing.” The archbishop notes that this practice, which is especially common for Protestants attending a Eucharist and which helps avoid endless debates, can also be extended to those who are divorced and civilly remarried.

The Orthodox practice of allowing second and more marriages following divorce is treated extensively by Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ in the Five Cardinals Book published last year (Remaining in the Truth of Christ, also available from Ignatius Press).

weddingThe whole debate about nullification or dissolution of a marriage is an intricate one, and it should always be reminded that a marriage can not be nullified. It can only be established that it was null from the very beginning, to the effect that there never was a marriage to begin with. The reasons for this are many, but for the purpose of this blog posts it suffices to say that they establish the validity of the marriage. One of the most convincing for those outside the world of canon law and ecclesiastical courts is perhaps that a marriage must be entered into out of free will; there can be no coercion, for any reason. If someone was forced into a marriage, it can be established that the marriage was null, that it never existed.

In relation to this, there must be a greater focus on and recognition of the fact that the couple did share much, even if it was no marriage. Our eyes should always be open to reality. That is a first step towards mercy. People need recognition of themselves and their lives. But recognition can never be automatically equated to approval. It’s a fine line we must walk as Church, but isn’t that always the case when we are in the business of dealing with people?

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] author’s own